When Freema Agyeman walks into a room with her big, bright smile, you can’t help but light up in response. Her energy and warmth comes across instantly, and she draws you closer to her with every word. Sense8 holds a special place in the hearts of fans, so getting to talk with Agyeman about her role as Amanita Caplan for an hour Sunday afternoon in the Hilton Grand Salon was a particular treat.
Moderator Tony Gowell kicked off the panel by asking how Agyeman initially got the part, to which Agyeman gave one of the best and most complex answers that we’d ever heard. I wish I could transcribe every word and somehow translate the experience of hearing her speak to you. To merely summarize it, Agyeman was working on The Carrie Diaries and when they weren’t sure if they were going to get another season, Agyeman started looking for other work. The script for Sense8 came her way, and after reading it, she told her mother that she was beyond excited and nervous for the role. When her mother asked why, Agyeman said, “This woman is an alter ego of whatever I could hope to be in terms of such a celebrator of her flesh and so confident and so full of joie de vive and fight and so strong. I don’t know where I’m going to pull all that from.”
Agyeman went on to say how important it was to her that she play Amanita authentically because the LGBTQ community is so under-represented on screen. “As a black woman, I always go into things thinking, ‘How is diversity addressed here?’ I’m not interested in tokenism, I’m not interested in clichés… how are you portraying this woman? How are we going to portray this queer, cis-gendered, hippie who is doing her thing? I want to do all of it authentically.”
During the audition process, Agyeman immediately felt that Sense8 was going to be different, even with just being allowed to get up and move around during the first audition. “We workshopped it and we played and we sent off the tape that we were both happy with,” she said. The next step in the process was to have a Skype chat with Lana Wachowski, which was astonishing for Agyeman. She’s said that for her The Matrix was everything, so having Wachowski “in her house” was a big deal. But she immediately felt a sense of a calm and trust with Wachowski at the start of their conversation.
“I want to tell this story about empathy and love and looking at this notion of identity and what makes us all the same. And what makes us all different,” Wachowski told her.
The last step was a chemistry test, but Agyeman tested with someone who ultimately didn’t get the role. So she had never met Jamie Clayton (Nomi Marks) before they started filming, which was a little nerve-inducing. “I love her,” Agyeman said of her co-star. “It was easy. I have so much respect for her. I grew so much in that job. It transformed me as an actor and as a person.”
The fans connected so deeply with the material that we did something that had never been done before: convinced a major network (Netflix) to conclude a canceled show with a movie. No one, including Wachowski, expected it to happen, but the fans put so much pressure on Netflix that they finally capitulated and allowed the series to wrap up. That connection to the material leads to lots of fans telling Agyeman their personal stories of how the material influenced us. When asked how that made her feel, to know that she had impacted us in such a profound way, she told us a story about a time when she felt very down about the industry and getting very frustrated about the imbalance in the ways we treat and protect actors versus teachers or other more worthy professions.
“At the time, my dad was incredibly ill. I remember going to see him once and speaking to one of the nurses,” she said. “I was so depressed about it, and she was always so jolly. I said to her ‘This is just one family’s pain that you’re immersing yourself in right now and you do this on a daily basis… how is your heart not just breaking every day that you come into work?’ And she said, ‘Because I like to go home and switch on my telly and escape into worlds that free me and make me feel happy and take my pain away. So thank you for doing what you do.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I need to stop being down on this industry.’ Because if it is done correctly, if the art is created and conveyed correctly, it’s life affecting! … It never gets old to me when people come up and say that. It feels validating, and I thank you because we go home as insecure bags of nerves… And then I hear that and it gives me a little more to help me keep going.”.
For Agyeman, being part of Sense8 felt like some kind of a utopia that she never wanted to leave, and she hopes we can bring a little bit more of that kind of world into the real world. The way that the fans were able to get the finale of Sense8 accomplished gives her hope and inspires her “because there are a lot of intelligent, open, woke-minded people out there.”
“The more of us that move out to spread our stories, spread our love, hopefully we can start to have an impact. I feel like with art, certainly, the more stories that are being told, that are being reflected back to us, if you can have equality and diversity behind the scenes, then how that’s reflected in front of the camera is much more authentic.”
One of the challenges that Agyeman faced with the role was that she had never done nudity before. She had to confront her own issues with body confidence in order to play this character. But Wachowski created such an environment to learn and grow, and there was such an atmosphere of play on set, that by the end she felt confident enough to stand naked and talk to the sound guy about his weekend.
Agyeman also expressed her passion for being able to help other people through charity and was recently part of Sleep Out, an annual fundraiser for Covenant House, a privately funded organization that helps homeless youth get back on their feet and be able to return to society with independence and dignity. She spoke movingly about how much these services are needed and how participating in the event profoundly affected her. We as an audience were also encouraged to do what we can but to never feel ashamed that we can’t do more, that whatever we do is enough and not to compare our ability to give or participate with someone else’s. “We’re all in this soup together,” she said. “Can we just help?”
Overall, the panel was full a thoughtful and profound conversation between us and Agyeman. But at the end we were able to inject a little levity when Agyeman was asked who would be in her cluster if she could choose. She said both Michelle and Barack Obama, Keanu Reeves, Grace Jones, Jason Momoa, and Alan Cumming, but when she got there Gowell suggested that she needed someone challenging and suggested Putin. The face that Agyeman made was priceless and everyone could tell that suggestion was a definite no. Eventually Agyeman settled on Boris Johnson as the last member of her cluster as someone she and the rest of the cluster could potentially influence through love. “This cluster is amazing!” she declared.
After the panel, Daily Dragon was able to get five minutes to chat with Agyeman backstage.
Daily Dragon (DD): We are so excited to have you here at Dragon Con. How has your first Dragon Con been?
Freema Agyeman (FA): It has been everything that all the hype that the people build up when you sort of don’t know anything about it. And I’ve done a few conventions in the past and wondered, ‘Why has this one got such an incredible reputation?’ Then you get here and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s why.’ First, I am going to compliment the organizers because it’s run so brilliantly. When the fans come here and are treated in such a way that enhances the experience of the reason they’re coming… you kind of want it to be a whole overall positive experience. It’s not always the case. I think if can come here and have people come up to my table and tell me they feel like they’ve been on vacation for three days, it’s incredible. So from my side of table, I’m really enjoying that. I’m enjoying people’s enjoyment of the event and I’m enjoying how brilliantly it’s put together and how it’s run.
DD: You talked a lot about your experiences on the set of Sense8 and your experience of working with Lana Wachowski. Can you tell me more about the way she approaches the work? What is the energy on set like with her?
FA: It is one of complete organic permissiveness. She is there to help you get the best out of yourself. Sometimes we can get closed in and you just need—I don’t even know how to articulate it. She is almost like a key to unlocking aspects of yourself when you’re going through your own creative journey. She’s an artist as well and she approaches it in her way and you approach things in your way. But collaboratively as a family when you want to work together to make something like Sense8 that is so community based and so much about being of one, the only way you’re going to achieve that is on a set with an open-ness and a free-ness and I certainly felt that I could speak to her about absolutely anything. I was able to voice all my concerns, if I had any, and she was able to help me overcome them and just help me get out of my comfort-zones a little bit.
DD: Is there anything that you wish you could have gotten to do as Amanita that you didn’t get a chance to do?
FA: She trusted me to do so much! In fact that character was only a semi-regular at first, and then by Season 2, it had been expanded into a regular role. I was so touched by that and humbled and grateful that she trusted me and so happy that we had that synergy that I wanted to be there more and she wanted me to be there more. Maybe… I was going to say something stunt-based, all the martial arts! Nomi did a good marital arts scene when she body-jumped! That’s the thing. Something physical. Maybe I’m just craving that next. I want to something really physical I think.
DD: I love the moment that Amanita and Daniella got with Whispers.
FA: They did have that moment, didn’t they! And the thing [the show is] a real combination of that cool bad-assery as well as just sort of meditating on the philosophical.
Agyeman can currently be seen in New Amsterdam as Dr. Helen Sharpe on NBC.